Usability Analysis and Redesign of Blackboard

Overview

“Blackboard” is a suite of software for educational course management. Through it, a university can manage all of their courses, students and instructors, provide best-of-breed community tools like discussion boards and mailing lists, and “realize the full power of the Internet for education.”

Blackboard at the University of Texas at Austin runs at https://courses.utexas.edu/, inaccessible to the general public. The site organization is hierarchical, with individual courses organized in parallel. Blackboard serves up a substantial quantity of resources. Classes and student organizations can use Blackboard to post announcements, mark events on a calendar, assign tasks and to-do items, manage grades, post curriculum content, host discussions on message boards, monitor science lab projects and more. In addition, UT uses the Blackboard site to provide links to many other UT online resources, most notably library services.

I believe that Blackboard is poorly organized, best-of-breed though it may be, and this poor organization ultimately costs students, professors and the university time and money due to wasted and frustrated efforts to use the system. My analysis focuses on the student side of Blackboard, as a recipient of information and participant in a class, not as a professor posting content. While UT provides public documentation on adding information into the system, without first-hand experience, any analysis deriving solely from that documentation would be incomplete.

My Blackboard

Screenshot of a My Blackboard page circa Fall 2005

Once logged in as a student, the My Blackboard home page provides a stepping stone to on- and off-site resources, from your courses to a New York Times newsfeed. Five separate navigation areas grace the front page: global navigation, including a link to the UT homepage, Help, Logout and the “Fun Zone” (a link to the Texas Exes when this was originally written, later pointed to the inclement weather advisory and “Bevo's Mind Benders”); site navigation, including My Blackboard and Courses tabs; Tools, linking to Announcements, Calendar and other class-spanning items; Links, providing off-site content; and the Module content of the home page itself, which varies depending on personal preference and the latest Blackboard defaults. The home page itself serves as ample example for the three major issues plaguing Blackboard.

First, there is a duplication of content and navigation. For example, “Announcements,” which are typically important notices and reminders from instructors to students, are accessible in three places on the homepage alone: from the Tools menu, in the “My Announcements” module, and organized by course in the “My Courses” module.

Second, there is a duplication of features. “View Grades” in the Tools menu is not the same as “eGradebook” in the Links menu, nor is the “Course Catalog” in the Tools menu the same as the UT registrar's online course catalog. In addition, individual instructors, courses or departments may roll out their own course management systems, such as the CWRL's use of Drupal.

Third, the interface and site navigation are inconsistent. “Home” goes to the UT homepage, not the Blackboard homepage. The “Links” tab has some, but not all of the links from the “Links” panel on the home page. Some links open up new page body content, with tertiary navigation removed and an OK button at the bottom which does nothing (Figure 2). Others change tabs and header navigation (Figure 3). Still others not only change tabs, but navigate additional levels of hierarchy deep in one case (Figure 4), but not in another (Figure 5). Confirmations are sometimes handled with additional pages, at other times they are handled with dialog boxes. Headers sometimes have boxes around them, sometimes are set off in another color, other times are simply larger.

Goals, Audience and Implementation Issues

The goals of Blackboard, from a student's perspective, are to provide the information the student needs for their class — office hours, course documents, the syllabus — as quickly and efficiently as possible. In general, students do not want to visit Blackboard, they have to visit Blackboard, therefore interaction should be painless and entirely productive. Any additional resources provided by Blackboard are wasted: for example, approximately two students per month, out of fifty thousand, attempt to use Blackboard to find ride shares or look for apartments; one question a month is asked about Blackboard itself and no students have ever used Blackboard to discuss topics unrelated to classes.

This becomes a problem when it comes time to analyze the site. No student “uses” Blackboard unless they have to; while it can serve as to-do list and dayplanner, most students will never cross paths with that functionality (out of an estimated 200 classes attended between five people across four years, only one class utilized the calendar, and none tasks). Unless a professor actively uses the announcements section or gradebook within Blackboard, students do not often interact with the site on the same day a class is attended for the purposes of said class. Interactions are necessarily short and often uncomfortable, but mostly short. The pain of poor design is temporary, and so can often be ignored. The lack of user outrage can mean a lack of political impetus to make any changes at all.

In addition, as interactions are short (and often frustratingly inconsistent), no-one ever completely explores the site. For example, in one task scenario, the student was looking for office hours. Blackboard supports an logged online chat function under “Communication, Collaboration.” One is even titled by default, “Office Hours.”

Customer Profiles

For customer profiles and task scenarios, I selected objectives that require using Blackboard exclusively. Checking grades and reviewing the course catalog, as previously discussed, can happen in multiple ways across multiple UT systems. As is typical, no interaction requires extended use of the system; either the student can get the information they need, or they cannot.

Four student task scenarios were developed and run through using the existing Blackboard web site, and then again with the provided wireframe redesign. Actual efficiency metrics were not measured, but total number of steps was drastically reduced.

Original Site Analysis

The common thread in all of these scenarios is the lack of clarity about the user interface. Course lists are always displayed in alphabetical order, placing all 2004 above all 2005, Fall 2005 above Summer 2005, and Spring 2006 at the end. This means classes you are not taking will always be first in the list. Feature names are often poorly labeled, and the overwhelming amount of information on the My Blackboard homepage can intimidate new users.

Thumbnail of My Blackboard site map

Developing a site map for the existing Blackboard site indicates a bevy of crosslinked pages and inconsistent relationships between features. For example, there is a per-class “Homepage” creation function under “Tools,” but you view the page by going to “Communications, Roster.”

New Site Design

For my new design, I pared down the site into its essentials, classes and organizations, and placed them in a purely parallel structure, with constant navigation and single points of entry and exit.

In fact, after the home page, the site is only one page deep. Large amounts of content on a single page (as professors who actually use Blackboard are wont to create) is an inevitability of the site design; it should be embraced with techniques to reduce displayed information on that single page, not broken out into dozens of crosslinked pages.

Jakob Nielsen's “Top Ten Web Mistakes” list from 1999 indicated that most users now understand that important page content can lie “below the fold.” His Alertbox from 2000 on eyetracking studies showing that for non-newspaper content, users “hunt” around the page visually, means we should encourage skimming with our site design. Large, highlighted headers for category names to help ensure that a user notes the distinct information categories, and understands the need to scan down the length of the page for information.

In addition, the most important standards- and accessibility-compliant issues with the site: the use of frames, is now removed. By using headers and content blocks as is semantically appropriate and by applying Javascript in a non-intrusive manner after page load, we ensure that accessibility standards can all be followed and alternative web browsers can best make use of the page content, e.g. headers are read off as categories in screen readers, which they actually are.

Finally, we ensure that Blackboard usage is consistent between classes, and encourage the professors to utilize it to the fullest. For example, in the current Blackboard setup, if an instructor does not use Blackboard, a student still has to traverse the site to be able to email the students in the class. In the new design, if an instructor has not set up Blackboard, the student is hampered. While this harms the student in the short term, it benefits them in the long term by forcing the instructor to actually use Blackboard in some capacity, which means that other students (or the same student, later on) will have more information readily available.

Vitorio Miliano
December 7, 2005